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Published Friday 18 Nov 2022

When the Ultra Fast Broadband project was first introduced by Steven Joyce after the 2008 election, my home internet was delivered by a Nokia M1122 modem and ran at a blistering 6Mbit/s download speed.


Joyce painted a picture of a fibre to the home network that was, initially at least, painted by many MPs as a handy excuse to break up Telecom. That was the goal, I was told on more than one occasion, not delivering the future to homes and buildings around the country.  


I was called upon repeatedly to explain what this fibre thing was and why it would change everything. I remember one radio journalist who called a halt to the interview halfway through. No, he said, I’m just not buying it. People don’t care about fast internet access. Sorry, we won’t be running the piece.  


At a public meeting on it, hosted I seem to recall by the Rotary Club, I was grilled about just what people would use it for. One chap said “So we’re ruining our retirement by investing in a network that will allow people to watch television online,” he asked. Of course not. We’re investing in a network that allow you to work remotely, to study course material from universities around the world, to follow breaking news as it happens, to have medical consultations over video conference calls, to connect with the communities you want to connect with no matter where in the world you all are and yes, if push comes to shove, you can use it to watch television as well.  


This week I attended a celebration to mark the end of the UFB build programme which will wrap up before the end of the year. Instead of getting fibre out to 75% of the country, the project will reach 87% and puts us at the front in terms of capability and capacity for our new digital world. Australia has spent more than $A50 billion on its network and is only able to serve around 30% of the population. The UK has ground to a halt having fibred up parts of London and very little else. As Chorus CEO JB Rousselot put it at the event, today we have fibre in places like St Arnaud in the Tasman District with a population of 111 hardy souls. 


I write this on my home internet connection which runs at 1,000 Mbit/s symmetrically, which allows me to do all the things I told the Rotarians about but also so much more. Backing things up is something I don’t even think about as everything is stored in the cloud and watching my kids make full length films with their classmates, collaborating in real time, and then sharing them with the world is quite frankly astonishing. 


It's a remarkable example of a public private partnership model that is delivering results on an epic scale and just goes to show what we can do when we put our minds to it. New Zealand has been transformed as a result of this project, often in ways we’re only now coming to appreciate.  


Connectivity is essential in a country as under-populated and as large as ours. The further from the centre you are, the more important good connectivity becomes, and that’s why fibre, along with our fiercely competitive mobile sector which is now gearing up for proper 5G capability and the newly emerging low-earth orbit satellite market, are starting to change the level of expectations.  


Internationally, the world is starting to catch up with us as well. While Australia and the UK continue to struggle, much of continental Europe is looking at rolling out ‘fibre to everyone’, more or less. Regional and rural governments are beginning to fund fibre delivery out to most of their populations, even in the very far north of countries like Sweden and Finland where conditions are a tad hostile, to put it mildly. The benefits far outweigh the costs. 


Chorus and the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research have published a report into the economic potential for rural connectivity and say benefits of over $16.5 billion are possible over the next decade if rural users have the same connectivity as their urban counterparts. 


That seems like a worthy goal to me. As I sat on the plane waiting to come home this week I watched live as NASA launched Artemis 1, a rocket bound for the moon. I did this on a device that fits in my pocket on a HD screen that looked better than the TV set my parents had for the original moon landings and I couldn’t help but think everyone should be able to do that. 

Maybe one day soon we all will.